308. Telegram From the Embassy in the United Kingdom to the Department of State1

11183. For EUR, PM, ACDA, and NSC only. Subject: Conventional Arms Transfer Restraint.

1. (C—Entire text). Summary: Embassy recommends that USG consider renewed effort to secure some greater measure of accord among the major Western suppliers on arms transfer issues before moving to any agreement on the subject with the USSR. While acknowledging the difficulties of achieving greater western accord, we believe recent developments and evolving attitudes make another effort worthwhile. In the absence of greater Western accord, any super power agreement may further divide us from our allies on these issues. End summary.

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2. The prospect of a renewal of US discussions with the Soviets on conventional arms transfer restraint raises once again the problem of involving the other major suppliers—our principal allies—Britain, France and Germany. Each of these governments has, to a varying degree, questioned the wisdom of the US approach to its own arms sales, and has expressed skepticism regarding the prospects for securing meaningful Soviet cooperation along the lines envisaged by the USG. None of our allies has been willing to accept the kinds of constraints which the US has imposed on itself, although the FRG has restrictions of its own which are in some respects even more far reaching.

3. Clearly no US/Soviet effort at mutual restraint can be long maintained without cooperation from the other major suppliers. Western cooperation is, in and of itself, an important objective, in some instances more important than achieving Soviet restraint. The major arms sales competition in the third world is not, after all, East-West, but intra-Western; recipient countries switching much more easily among Western suppliers than between East and West.

4. Our allies have maintained that they could not be expected to accept cooperative restraints unless the Soviets could be brought in as well. One should not conclude from these statements that a US/Soviet agreement would in fact lead our allies to cooperate. On the contrary, it may stimulate their suspicions and reinforce their determination not to accept any external constraints. In the UK, the new government, not having been party to our earlier consultations on this issue, could react negatively to any US/Soviet accord it experienced as impacting on the UK’s freedom of action. It is also instructive to note that as the prospect for US agreement with the Soviets seemed to come closer, in 1977–78, the French became progressively less cooperative, eventually veto-ing further quadripartite consultations,2 and refusing to do more than listen to US briefings.

5. These considerations lead us to conclude that unless some greater measure of accord among the Western suppliers is achieved prior to any US/Soviet agreement, such a super power agreement may divide US from our allies even further on this issue. We recognize the difficulty of achieving today an agreement among Western suppliers which eluded US two years ago. Nevertheless, there are several new factors which make another effort worthwhile. First, events in Iran have illustrated the political—and even commercial—folly of unrestrained competition among arms suppliers (all of whom, incidentally, [Page 769] were Western). Second, the prospect for involving the Soviets in a dialogue on arms transfer seems more practical today than it did two years ago. Third, US efforts to restrain its arms transfers and to focus international attention on the issue have gradually had an impact on official attitudes, at least in the UK. Finally, the threat of greater competition resulting from the US lifting some of its self-imposed constraints, in the absence of agreed restraints, is more credible today than two years ago.

6. In seeking to involve our allies in a more constructive dialogue we recommend setting ourselves fairly modest initial objectives. In 1977 the US notified the Europeans of the basic elements of its new arms transfer policy3 before it had discussed these issues with them in any depth. From their standpoint the subsequent four power discussions were an effort to change their policies, without offering them the slightest prospect that they might change ours. In renewing our effort to achieve greater Western accord, we would suggest a more open ended approach, one in which we explained to our allies that the USG was reviewing its own policies, as well as its approach to involving the Soviets and other suppliers, and would like our allies’ views before making any decisions.

7. The new British government4 may, in our view, be open to renewed Western discussions on the problems posed by Conventional Arms Transfers, leading toward more regular exchanges on such issues and perhaps toward agreement on certain limited, generally acceptable principles of restraint. The creation of such a forum, and even modest agreement on elements of restraint would in our view be a major step forward. We would welcome comment from Embassies Paris and Bonn regarding the receptivity of their host government to any such renewal consultations, bilateral or quadripartite, among the Western suppliers.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790258–0646. Confidential; Priority; Exdis. Sent for information to Paris and Bonn.
  2. The Embassy reported in telegram 35883 from Paris, October 31, 1978, that “France is not ready to participate, at this time, in four-power talks or talks with the Soviet Union on CAT. The GOF would rather keep the matter as a subject for bilateral discussion.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780450–0450)
  3. See footnote 1, Document 271.
  4. On May 4, the Conservative Party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher won a general election and replaced the Labour party.